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Saturday, May 09, 2009
Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins
Crime fiction has long made use of actual cases and events to sustain fictional narratives. What began in De Quincey's time ("On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts"), has now become the bedrock for what is predominantly a reality-based genre. But basing novels on actual events also has its disadvantages. The danger is that reporting and research can become substitutes for depth and the imaginative process. Both these evocative novels- one published in April and the other not until July- are based on real events- Atkins’s on the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe case, as investigated by Hammett in San Francisco in 1921, and Abbott’s on the trunk murders of the early 1930s. But the latter, centered on a woman trapped by gender and class, and which reads like a cross between a pre-production code Hollywood movie and a David Lynch horror film, is, I think, the more perceptive and imaginative of the two. Abbot's characters jump off the page, which means they, as much as the plot, are responsible for creating much of the narrative tension. At the same time, she allows events to proceed to their logical, if horrific, conclusion. On the other hand, Devil’s Garden reads less like a work of the imagination, and more like reportage, even when he’s clearly riffing on what might or might not have taken place, which he does most effectively in the scenes in which Hearst and Marion Davies appear. Not that reportage is necessarily a bad thing, but these days I find myself looking for something more in my crime fiction. For example, Atkins’s previous novel, White Shadow, which, for me, was one of the best crime novels of the past couple years (I haven’t read Wicked City, though I intend to do so), and a novel that not only depicts an era but is precise and perceptive when it comes its portrayals, locale and the contours of the case. For me, Devil’s Garden, unlike Bury Me Deep, just doesn't go far enough. But then Atkins has probably set himself a harder task. After all, so much has been written about both Arbuckle and Hammett, from Jerry Stahl to Joe Gores. Having said that, the trunk murders, as Abbott acknowledges in her Afterward, has also been documented. Maybe it’s just a matter of having become jaded from reading too much crime fiction, or not being in the right frame of mind when I read Atkins’s novel. Anyway, don’t take my word for it. Read both novels when they appear and decide for yourself. Now to get on to Wicked City...
An added note: I was interested to see that Atkins acknowledges Don Herron and David Fecheimer, as having helped him in his research for Devil’s Garden. It’s not surprising. Herron is the authority on Hammett’s SF (as well as author of an excellent book on Willeford), and Fecheimer is the well-known San Francisco private investigator, or at least well known to readers of crime fiction. Interestingly, I knew Fecheimer when we were both at San Francisco State and even remember the day when, after finishing the Maltese Falcon, he got himself hired as a private investigator. I had also recently read Hammett, and the same idea had occurred to me, that it might be interesting to be a private investigator, though I was too busy with others things to pursue the matter. The last time I saw David I was reading Borges, and I remember him recommending I try De Quincey, probably thinking about “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Maybe in some Brogesian universe we’ve swapped places, though I don’t know if I’ve ever had the patience to be a private eye. Though the research aspect might be another matter.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.